By:  Justin Mattingly
Source: Richmond Times-Dispatch

How Do Hungry Kids Get Food After School's Out? Summer Program Fills Gap in Richmond

Shortly after noon on Tuesday, the utility room of the Bellmeade Community Center in Richmond’s South Side turned into a de facto lunch room.

Four rows of folding tables filled the middle of the space, with dozens of elementary school-age children lining their sides. Just like during the school year, the children laughed and played with one another. They also got lunch — a sandwich with fruits and vegetables, and milk to wash it down — for no charge.

The community center borders Oak Grove-Bellmeade Elementary School, where 92 percent of students qualify for free or reduced meals during the school year, according to the most recent data. While every student at the school receives free meals during the school year in accordance with Richmond Public Schools policy, the same can’t be said for many students during summer break.

Fewer than one in six Virginia students who rely on free or reduced school meals also get free meals through summer programs.

“When you move out of the school year, you also move out of those [free and reduced-priced meal programs],” said James Taylor, the CEO of United Way of Greater Richmond & Petersburg, which recently released the first report on summer programs in the Richmond region. “When you have these summer learning opportunities, maintaining the nutrition aspects, particularly for low-income students, is absolutely critical because a lot of these students are struggling to maintain their nutrition.”

Across Virginia, 39 percent of public school students qualify for free meals, according to state data, while 5 percent have their meal prices reduced because of their parent or guardians’ income.

In order to qualify for free meals, students must come from a family with an income at or below 130 percent of the poverty level, which totals about $32,600 annually for a family of four. Those between 130 and 185 percent of the poverty level are eligible for the reduced meals — prices that can’t exceed 40 cents for lunch and 30 cents for breakfast.

Yet only about 15 percent of those students are getting free meals through summer programs. Richmond-area localities are trying to fight that.

Across the region, children 18 years old or younger are able to receive free summer meals at more than 150 local locations. Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, joined by Virginia first lady Pamela Northam, on Monday signed a proclamation calling this week “Summer Meals Action Week.”

The meals are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, administered by state agencies and served by organizations such as schools and libraries.

“We need to make sure more kids access healthy meals during the summer months,” said Claire Mansfield, the state director for No Kid Hungry, a national organization aimed at ending childhood hunger. “Summer meal sites are at safe and easily accessible places throughout the city. Many of the locations also offer enrichment and physical activities to keep youth engaged, as well.”


To find the summer meal site closest to you, text FOOD or COMIDA to 877-877 and type in a ZIP code.